Fresno Night Lights

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Feit Can Write

That was something, wasn’t it?

Not the game, although that was quite entertaining – if a little long at times.  I’m talking about the experience of playing Fresno State in Fresno.  A 9:30 CDT kickoff meant that the game started after the bed times for the youngest and oldest Husker fans.  Thousands more probably didn’t make it past halftime.  For those fans watching in bars with 1:00 closing times, did you get kicked out before the game ended?  And I’m guessing Sunday morning church attendance across the state really took a hit.

For all the quirks and inconveniences of this game, it was an important one to play.  Fresno State may not be the best team Nebraska has played in 2014, but they are the most respected brand name – and that does matter.  It also matters to play the occasional game in the state of California if you intend to maintain a recruiting presence in the state.  Short of a Rose Bowl appearance, late night in Fresno will have to do for now.

So what did we learn?

The defense showed flashes of dominance.  Looking at the night as a whole, the defense had a pretty solid outing.  The Blackshirts held Fresno to just over 100 yards rushing and 346 in total offense.  One of the Bulldog touchdowns (the 66 yard keeper by quarterback Brian Burrell) was a busted play that snowballed.  But other than that, Fresno did not mount much of a threat offensively.

But what I liked seeing where the occasional flashes of brilliance from all levels of the defense.  Vincent Valentine shoving guards backwards.  Randy Gregory being Randy Gregory.  Marcus Newby sprinting around left tackles.  Joshua Kalu looking like a budding star.  Josh Mitchell locking down his side of the field.  Sure tackling.  Multiple defenders swarming to the ball.

A Bo Pelini defense is never a finished product in Week 3, but this unit looks like they are starting to gel.  Hopefully that continues against better offenses.

Ryker Fyfe has a cannon.  With Nebraska comfortably ahead, Tim Beck was able to get backup Ryker Fyfe some work.  Granted, he only threw three passes, but all three looked like they were shot out of a rifle.  I’d like to see a little more to accurately judge if Fyfe has the accuracy and touch to go along with it, but I’m not as concerned about the backup position as I was a month ago.

It’s also worth noting that Fyfe was able to find Terrell Newby in the flat for a nice 12 yard gain.  Without making a dig at Armstrong or Beck (depending on where your finger points), I’ll simply say that seems to be an effective way to get the ball to a speedy running back.  One that might be worth revisiting on some third down plays.

Nebraska has tight ends.  And they can do more than just block.  It was not late night sleep deprivation playing tricks on you – two Nebraska tight ends caught touchdown passes.  With a little better connection between Tommy Armstrong and Cethan Carter, the tight ends could have been the highest scoring position group in the game.

I’m aware that in a summer interview with Corn Nation, Tim Beck agreed that the tight end is “obsolete”.  I disagreed at the time, and I still think that was a misguided statement.  With the right talent utilized properly, a big fast tight end is an unstoppable weapon at all levels of football today.

Besides, a current Nebraska roster shows 11 tight ends on the team.  You might as well use them as more than undersized linemen.

So what don’t we know?

Of the three teams NU has played in 2014, which one is the best?  I ask not to make a statement about the strength or name recognition of NU’s first three opponents, but to help get a feel for which NU to look for as the competition level improves this week.

Should we look for the Nebraska team that crushed FAU (1-2, with a convincing win over Tulsa), the one that struggled with McNeese State (1-1, after their romp over Prairie View A&M), or the one that cruised by Fresno State (0-3, average margin of defeat:  35 points)?

For those of your who pick FAU or Fresno, I’m curious to know if your answer would change if McNeese played in the Sun Belt, WAC, or other FBS league team.  Personally, I’m not sure.  You could make an argument for any of the three.

Is punt return truly fixed?  It is very easy to look at the numbers – five returns for 150 yards and a touchdown – and say that the curse of Santino Panico has been broken.  Regardless of if Nebraska eclipsed their 2013 return yardage in a single night, the sample size is still too small to draw any firm conclusions.

Before I go on, I want to pause and give credit to the coaching staff for addressing a clear weakness both in scheme (blocking for your returner appears to be a winning strategy) and talent (getting De’Mornay Pierson-El on campus is looking like a huge recruiting win).

To be sure, the punt return team is clearly improved over 2012 and 2013, and one has to like where that unit is heading.  Maybe I’m still shell shocked from two years of fumbled fair catches, but I’m not ready to declare everything better.  If you disagree, answer this:  when a punt is in the air, are you holding your breath unsure of if the returner will catch AND hold on to the ball?  Until that feeling goes away, the unit is still under extra scrutiny.

Is the all-white road look a one time thing?  It was a bit of a surprise to see Nebraska take the field in all white, instead of their traditional red pants, white jerseys.  I heard the reason was because Fresno was in all red, but I’m not 100% sure I believe that.  It’s not uncommon to see teams in two different shades of the same color of pants.

For the record, I didn’t hate the look as much as I thought I would (regular readers know that I am very much a traditionalist when it comes to Nebraska’s game day attire).  Maybe it was my buddy Nate’s HD TV, but I don’t remember white on white looking that good.  Regardless, I would not be surprised if we see the look again this season, as a) the Twitterverse seemed to love it, and more importantly b) Nebraska scored 14 points in the first three minutes of the game.  Maybe for the road trip to East Lansing or Madison?

Finally, it is worth noting that per my stats, the win puts Nebraska up to 4 – 10 (a .286 percentage) when wearing all one color.  They can get to .333 with a win over Illinois at the end of the month.  So maybe they’ll want to stick to red pants for those big road games.

Four Downs and Four Losses

In my opinion, there are four key areas where Nebraska has fallen down in the last few years.  Their inability to be successful (or, at times, competent) in these areas often factor prominently in the four losses that Pelini teams have every year.  I believe that to avoid another four loss season, Nebraska needs to win at least two of these four downs every game.

  • Turnover Margin:  Nebraska failed to take the ball away from Fresno State – and you never really felt like they were close to a turnover.  The stat sheet says NU only had one turnover (Terrell Newby’s fumble), but the David Santos safety not only gave Fresno two points, it cost Nebraska a possession, so I’m counting it.  LOSS.
  • Penalties:  Six penalties for 61 yards, none of which had a negative impact on a scoring drive.  It is worth nothing that one-third of those penalties were committed by team captains.  WIN.
  • Punt Returns:  A block in the back nullified a decent return.  Another return was fumbled and nearly lost.  More fair catches…Yeah, who am I kidding?   This is an absolute no-brainer.  Aside from Pierson-El’s highlight reel day, Nebraska also got legitimate pressure on a punt, making me think that there may be a block in our future.  WIN.
  • Game Management:  Typically, you don’t want to burn a timeout on the first series of the game, but all is forgiven when the next play is a 70 yard touchdown.  You could make the argument that Abdullah should have been done for the day a series earlier than he was, but I’m okay with the coaching staff getting him over 100 rush yards for the day.  Otherwise, I had no issue with how the game was managed.  WIN.

Tally:  Three wins, with two of them very convincing.  Still, losing the turnover battle can trump these victories.

5 Players I Loved

  1. De’Mornay Pierson-El.  When you take the first punt to the house since the 2012 Idaho State game, you deserve the top spot – even if you nearly caused disaster by fumbling a kickoff out of bounds at the 1 yard line.  A big spark plug with a bright future.
  2. Randy Gregory.  Welcome back, big fella.  I forgot just how fast he is off the line – both with his feet and with his hands to get free of a block.  His whiplash inducing hit on Willie Harper’s son was scary good, but I loved the hustle he showed on a play in the third quarter following the Fresno back through the hole and chasing him down for the tackle.  As an added bonus, his return is going to make Greg McMullen look that much better on the other side.
  3. Joshua Kalu.  The true freshman looked very good on Saturday.  He blitzed, he covered, he had a team high six solo tackles, and forced a fumble.  I really liked what I saw out of Kalu, and I want to see more of it in the weeks to come.
  4. Alex Lewis.  I loved his block on Ameer’s long touchdown.  He sealed off the backside player with his…um…backside.  Essentially it looked like Lewis was a power forward boxing out his man.  Regardless, it was effective.
  5. Lane Hovey.  Okay…I’ll admit it:  When I saw Hovey come in at WR during the McNeese State game, my initial reaction was “Yikes.  Our receiver corps is really depleted.”  After his three catches for 48 yards in the second half, my reaction was “I was wrong.  This guy has some talent.  I hope to see more of him.”

Honorable Mention:  Jack Gangwish, Imani Cross, Christian Bailey, Sam Foltz, Vincent Valentine, Fresno State’s first field goal attempt

5 Areas for Improvement

  1. Offensive Line.  I like that NU is actively promoting Ameer Abdullah for the Heisman (side note – sending the eight AA batteries out was an inspired idea).  However, his candidacy is going to suffer if the line cannot be more consistent.  Fresno came into the game ranked 119 in rush defense, but Nebraska struggled to establish the run the way I feel they could have.  Take away the long TD runs by Abdullah and Imani Cross, and NU only averages 4 yards per carry instead of 6.7.
  2. Jake Cotton.  Remember when the left side of the offensive line (anchored by Cotton and Lewis) was supposed to be the dominate side?   As noted above, I think Lewis is holding up his end, but Cotton is not.  He picked up a penalty, had some very questionable blocking, and got pushed back more times than I’d care to remember.  I’m aware that it may not be fair to single out Cotton – or to suggest that he follow in his father’s footsteps of message board whipping boy, but in this case it is deserved.  Fair or not, the coach’s kid gets held to a higher standard – especially when he is a senior co-captain.
  3. David Santos.  You think Santos was quietly relieved that Fresno scored some points on their own so the final score wasn’t Nebraska 55 – David Santos 2?  I have no idea what he was hoping to accomplish by spiking that punt out of the end zone, but NU was fortunate to only give up two points.
  4. Tommy Armstrong, Jr.  Tommy is primarily on this list for not throwing more check downs to his backs (specifically Abdullah).  There was a picture that made the rounds on Twitter of a 3rd down play where Ameer was truly all alone as Armstrong prepared to fire to a receiver who was covered (I believe the pass was incomplete).  Lest you think I’m bagging on the QB, hear my logic:  The O Line is struggling to create holes for the run game which is consistently putting NU behind the down and distance.  By throwing a dump pass to a proven playmaker, Armstrong can a) pick up first downs and b) make opposing defenses respect the short passing game which should open up the running lanes.  In short: teams are loading the box to make Armstrong beat them with his arm.  That is exactly what he should do – by breaking them down with short passes to his backs.
  5. CBS Sports Network.  I would love to hear any sort of rational justification for why we needed to watch the final 1:30 of the Wake Forest – Utah State game instead of the first two minutes of Nebraska – Fresno State.  I could understand if it was a one possession game (it wasn’t) or there was an outside shot at a miracle comeback (not even if Utah State tried to let Wake win), but when your own commentator says “this one is over”, do not make anybody sit through 90 seconds of kneel downs when there is another game to get to.  In the absolute worst case scenario, do a split screen of the two games.  Additionally, there were several very curious comments (“Fresno is poised to take control of the game”) as well as statements that made it rather obvious that they weren’t very prepared (“Mac Knees State”), along with some very amusing commercials that I should bash.  But frankly, these are all things one should expect when you play on a third tier cable channel late at night.

What do you think?

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